June 12, 2019

“A Girl I Knew” — Remembering Anne Frank and J.D. Salinger

By Stuart Mitchner

Anne Frank was born 90 years ago today. When she turned 13 on June 12, 1942, she was given a diary. A week later, after a long entry about her birthday and her friends and before she and her family began life in the “secret annex,” she imagines “that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”

Writing about the schoolgirl’s musings in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (2009), Francine Prose meditates on the fact that “the most widely read and enduring masterpiece about that brutal era [1942-1945] was written by a girl between the ages of 13 and 15.”

In The Ghost Writer (1976), Philip Roth calls Anne Frank “a marvelous young writer,” comparing her to “some impassioned little sister of Kafka’s.” C.K. Williams says “I thought of you at that age, Little Sister” in his poem “A Day for Anne Frank,” which begins with children running back and forth in a filthy alley, “the girls’ screams suspended behind them with their hair … their feet pounding wildly on the pavement.”

Meeting Anne, Reading Salinger

As an average all-American sports-crazed 16-year-old gentile growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, I didn’t think of Anne as a little sister or a “marvelous” writer. I hadn’t read the diary, hadn’t read Kafka, and didn’t know that his sisters also died in the camps. I daydreamed of girls with her face before I saw it on the cover of the book. I saw her in the mystery child Joseph Cotton meets in Central Park in A Portrait of Jennie and in the dark-haired, dark-eyed girls smiling flirtatiously from the windows of passing cars. The summer before my senior year in high school, the real Anne arrived, fresh from New York City, an artist’s daughter who could talk about poetry and jazz and movies and the theatre and who changed my life in a single afternoon. During a recent overhaul of my study, I discovered a rough draft of the cringe-inducing letter I sent her, the first in an exchange that led to a misbegotten theatre date in Manhattan the following summer. There are sentences like “I have been writing loads of stories and poems, and the best ones are about you.” One story, written under the influence of Holden Caulfield, describes the adventures of a boy from Indiana who hitchhikes to New York to see the girl he fell in love with, only to find that she’s “not at home.” It’s called “Give Her My Regards,” which is what he tells her parents when they shut the door in his face.

As it happened, the other life-changing experience coming my way from New York that same summer was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye — which not only explains the voice in my story but why, now that I’m finally reading the diary and getting to know the witty, personable, inventive, mischievous, maddening, breathtakingly self-aware girl who wrote it, I can sometimes sense Holden Caulfield reading over my shoulder. I see Anne in Holden’s affection for his precocious little sister Phoebe (“If you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what you’re talking about”) and even more in his fondness for Jane Gallagher, who he lived next door to one summer and used to play checkers with, she who would never move her kings because she liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row: “She was a funny girl, old Jane….She was sort of muckle-mouthed. I mean when she was talking and got excited about something, her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all. That killed me.” I can also see Anne in Salinger’s fictional little sister Franny Glass, in the English girl who saves a soldier’s sanity in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” and above all in the Jewish teenager the author knew before the war and remembers in “A Girl I Knew,” one of the stories he never put between covers.

A Date with Anne

By all rights, I should assume Holden’s voice to describe what happened when I took my Anne Frank to the prize-winning play based on her diary. It was a tragicomedy of errors not unlike one of Holden’s Manhattan misadventures, “when he attempted to enter the human race” and “no human race was there,” as William Faulkner observed in expressing his admiration for The Catcher in the Rye. Except that the human race was there, sitting next to me that night in the balcony at the Cort Theatre. The problem was I didn’t really know her. We’d talked about everything under the sun the previous summer but hadn’t gotten around to our deepest feelings. I had no way of comprehending the visceral electricity between the girl who changed my life and the one who wrote the diary. Maybe she didn’t really comprehend it herself until the curtain rose and she heard the voice of her unseen soulmate saying “We had to wear yellow stars. I had to turn in my bike, I couldn’t go to a Dutch school any more. I couldn’t go to the movies, or ride in an automobile, or even on a streetcar, and a million other things.”

Later in the first act, the Anne in the play (Susan Strasberg) is lectured about showing off and talking too much and generally being a nuisance; when she’s told that the “ideal girl” is one who loves to cook and sew, she shouts, “I’d cut my throat first! I’d open my veins! I’m going to be remarkable! I’m going to Paris to study music and art. To be a famous dancer or singer … or something wonderful.”

By then I was sure the only Anne in the world was the actress playing her. If you really want to know, as Holden would say, Susan Strasberg knocked me out. She killed me. So much so that I’d forgotten about the tense, trembling, moved-to-tears girl next to me who seemed to feel those words of hopeful defiance as if her own deepest thoughts had been voiced, as if she and the Anne onstage were one being, alive and all by themselves in the same small room. Only then did I begin to fathom the spiritual identity of the person I’d taken to the play, a revelation that both moved and embarrassed me. To this day, I shudder to think how close I came to putting my arm around her or giving her hand a squeeze, to show her I understood. Maybe she’d have accepted the gesture as something better than some hick teenager making a clueless-boyfriend move, but I doubt it. When the lights came on at the end, she was a shaken stranger and like strangers we sat on the bus heading downtown. I knew better than to try to make conversation. She was polite. She thanked me for “a nice time” when we said good night.

I never saw her again. I didn’t need to. She became a mythical being, “the girl who changed my life,” the person who made me want to be a writer, whose photo I kept in my wallet all the way to India and back and communed with whenever I needed either a reality check or evidence that life was worth living regardless of whether people were, as the girl in the play ultimately decided, “good at heart.”

What it’s taken me a lifetime to realize is that it’s just as likely what upset her wasn’t that she had so much in common with a doomed girl, but that the play failed to do justice to the Anne she knew from the diary, as others have complained, and that she herself, my Anne, the girl from New York, left the theatre feeling passionately at odds with the idea that people were “good at heart” in a world where unthinkable catastrophes like the Holocaust and Hiroshima could happen.

Holden and Anne

Salinger has been on my mind since D-Day not only because of the connections I’ve mentioned and the fact that this is his centenary but because of George Will’s “By the Book” put-down in the June 2 issue of the New York Times Book Review. When asked to name a “disappointing, overrated, just not good” book, he mentions The Catcher in the Rye, “which, like Holden Caulfield, should have been strangled in the cradle. Just what the world does not need: another sullen adolescent.” This is exactly the sort of mindless spiteful bookchat nastiness that so disgusted and repelled Salinger and is among the many reasons he refused to enter the arena of publication for the last half of his life. It’s probably doing Will too much credit to assume that he forgot or never knew that the solider author of The Catcher was writing his book, birthing Holden Caulfield, during his progress from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of death camps like Bergen-Belsen, where the girl he knew and loved in Vienna before the war had been incinerated along with the rest of her family. At the end of Salinger’s Vienna story, published in 1948 before Anne’s diary had been translated into English, an American soldier is told what happened to the girl and says, “Yeah? What was she, a Jew or something?”

In the diary’s last entry, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank writes, “I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, an off-color joke. This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer. No one knows Anne’s better side, and that’s why most people can’t stand me. Oh, I can be an amusing clown for an afternoon, but after that everyone’s had enough of me to last a month. Actually, I’m what a romantic movie is to a profound thinker — a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten ….”